Tuesday 10 February 2015

Book review: Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles by Chris Townsend

by Chris Townsend

Chris Townsend is one of the world's leading authorities on backpacking. He's been doing it for a long time and has written many books on the subject. In fact, his Backpacker's Handbook was a major source of inspiration for me as a teenager, when I was first developing a love of the outdoors and wanted to try backpacking for myself. It went in my rucksack in 2003 when I embarked on my first multi-day trip. I always look forward to new books from this author.

Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles is an account of Chris's 1982 thru-hike of the epic Pacific Crest Trail. The book stands out for several reasons, and readers will be blown away by the sheer scale — not only of the landscape through which the author voyages, but the scale of the challenge itself. This is a really big walk. Thru-hikers routinely take up to six months to complete the 2,663-mile route, and it crosses a variety of wild terrain including remote deserts and the High Sierra. Even in the 21st century, the PCT requires real commitment, fitness and experience to complete ... so what was it like thirty-odd years ago?

Part of the value of this book comes from Chris, now a backpacker with a lifetime of experience, looking back on the hike and offering a retrospective view. He frequently refers to the journal he kept on the trail and includes many photographs originally taken on slide film (no digital cameras in those days, so shots had to be rationed). The real eye-opener is the gear. Nowadays, lightweight gear is the norm, but many of the innovations we take for granted nowadays simply didn't exist back then. In particular I'm astonished by the weight of his pack as he crossed the Sierra, with many days' food supply plus ice axe, crampons, snowshoes, and other items essential for the high mountains.

Yosemite. Photograph from Wikipedia
He learned many important lessons along the way, perhaps the most important being that thick, heavy boots (more or less the only hiking footwear available at the time) were not ideal for the task, particularly in the desert sections. He quickly switched to the running shoes he carried as backup footwear and ended up wearing them for most of the rest of the walk. This tactic was ahead of its time, but has now become widely accepted.

For me, what makes this book really shine is the adventure itself. It's impossible not to be captivated and enthralled by the majesty of the landscape, and the monumental challenge of taking on a route of this calibre. Before reading Rattlesnakes I knew that the PCT was a long route, but I didn't appreciate how hard or committing it was, or that it joined together some of the wildest and most beautiful landscapes in the USA. Only a handful of other hikers completed the PCT in 1982. It is, quite simply, one of the great foot journeys of the world — and this is a fine account of it.

This is a great book, skilfully written with charm and authority, and it will be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in backpacking or wild places.

Buy the book on Amazon UK

Further reading

Chris's blog, which features many interesting articles on the PCT and backpacking in general

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